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A Saturnian Summer

Topic: Saturn
Article Published - May 29
by Dr. Jim Lattis, Director, UW Space Place
Jupiter in December

We haven't seen the planet Saturn in the evening sky for quite a while, but the ringed planet makes its return in the last weeks of spring and will be prominent in the sky in the coming summer months. On 22 May Saturn was at opposition, meaning that as seen from Earth it was 180 degrees from the Sun. That happens when Earth in its orbit overtakes the slower planets (Mars and beyond). At opposition, the planet rises at sunset, sets at sunrise, and is highest in the sky at midnight. (Remember that "midnight" in Daylight Saving Time is really 11 p.m. in normal hours, so Saturn at opposition is actually highest in the sky at 1 a.m. in summer clock hours.) At opposition we are closest to the planet, so it is brightest and biggest from our point of view. That is why opposition is usually the best time to observe a planet.

The illustration shows the southern sky from Wisconsin at about midnight (in late May), or about an hour before the planet is highest in the south. Saturn's opposition this year occurs with the planet in the constellation Scorpius, which lies towards the southernmost part of the ecliptic. For that reason, Saturn at its highest will still not be very high in the sky as seen from northern locations, such as Wisconsin.

As summer progresses, Saturn will be rising progressively earlier. By the time of the solstice, in late June, Saturn will be prominent in the southern sky by 10 p.m. or so and even earlier as the rest of the summer passes. This year Saturn's rings are tipped nicely, which will make for fine telescopic views. And as Saturn comes into prominence, Jupiter and Venus, which have been with us for months now in the evening sky, will drop ever further into the sunset and nearly out of sight by early July, leaving the remainder of our summer nights to Saturnian (but hopefully not Saturnine!) influences.

From the University of Wisconsin's "Space Place"
Villager Mall, 2300 S Park Street, Madison

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